A Tale of Three Seminaries

Twin Cities seminaries

The Twin Cities boasts three Protestant seminaries (forgive me if I don’t consider John Piper’s unaccredited school a seminary in full standing). They are Luther Seminary, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and Bethel Seminary. And I think that the rising and falling fortunes of these three can tell us something interesting about the landscape of the church in America today. [Disclosure: I teach at United, I am part of a Templeton grant at Luther, and I once made out with a girl in the trees behind Bethel. I have friends who teach at all three.]

Luther Seminary was initially founded in 1917 as the merger of three Norwegian Lutheran seminaries. Another merger with Augsburg Seminary (also Norwegian) happened in 1963, and yet another merger in 1976 with Northwestern Lutheran Theological Seminary (English) led to Luther Northwestern Seminary. In 1994, they simplified the name to Luther Seminary. Luther is the largest of the eight seminaries of the ELCA denomination — with incoming classes of well over 100 — but it has recently fallen on hard times. Due to falling enrollment and financial mismanagement, the president and CFO were let go and many faculty and staff were laid off.

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities was also formed by a merger. In 1957, the United Church of Christ denomination was formed out of the merger of a couple denoms, and in 1962, UTS was founded as the merger of Yankton School of Theology (German Congregational) and Mission House (German Reformed). In the 1970s and 80s, UTS was at the forefront of liberalism, particularly feminist theology, and was among the first seminaries to enroll openly gay students. But their star faded, and in the last few years, incoming classes were in the low 30s. Today it serves primarily UCC, UMC, and UUA students.

Bethel Seminary was initially founded in Chicago in 1871. In 1914, it was acquired by the Baptist General Conference denomination and moved to Minnesota. Always evangelical in its outlook, Bethel made news in the 1990s when professors John Piper and Greg Boyd squared off, resulting in Boyd’s resignation and Piper’s withdrawal from Bethel and the BGC. In its heyday, Bethel was welcoming over 200 new students every year, but recently they’ve laid off all of their church historians as well as several other faculty members.

Here’s the interesting part:

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Wolfhart Pannenberg (1928-2014)

Wolfhart Pannenberg—In Memoriam

by Philip Clayton

Wolfhart Pannenberg

Wolfhart Pannenberg in 1983

Wolfhart Pannenberg has often been called the greatest theologian of the second half of the 20th century. With his death Friday, the world has lost a brilliant interpreter of Christianity, and I have lost the mentor who molded me as a scholar, theologian, and person.

In the 1950s, when Pannenberg was a doctoral student in Heidelberg, Karl Barth dominated the theological stage. In order to counteract Barth’s overemphasis on salvation history (Heilsgeschichte), Pannenberg redefined revelation as “universal history” (Universalgeschichte). A few years later he published a major Christology (Jesus—God and Man) that established him as the world’s leading defender of “theology from below.”

Over the next 30 years, Pannenberg extended this program to philosophy, the religion/science debate, the dialogue across the world religions, and to every corner of theology. He had the most encyclopedic mind I have ever encountered. You need only to read around a bit in his multi-volume Basic Questions in Theology to be stunned by the range and depth of his scholarship. John Cobb once quipped, “I saw that Pannenberg was able to encompass the entire range of knowledge within his own mind. Realizing that I could never match this achievement, I decided it would take a lifetime of working with my doctoral students to cover as many topics.”

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Some Thoughts About Mark Driscoll

KOMO News

There were a couple things that I couldn’t avoid, even with my self-imposed internet sabbatical. One was the ice-bucket challenge. The other was the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll.

I’ve written about Mark plenty here, and I’ve detailed his early involvement with the emergent movement in one of my books. Mark and I never knew each other all that well. I got the impression that he looked down on me because in our “Group of 20,” I was the lone youth pastor. Just about everyone else had planted a church of their own.

Those were heady days. Cover articles on Christianity Today and Christian Century within a year of each other — that’s rare. Television coverage on ABC and PBS. Articles in the New York Times. Speaking gigs, book contracts, conferences. That shit can go to your head.

Let’s be honest. It did.

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DID GOD KILL JESUS? Update [VIDEO] #DGKJ

Here’s a short video I shot to update you on the forthcoming book:

Same As It Ever Was

Me, contemplating a return to the Internet. (photo by Courtney Perry)

Me, contemplating a return to the Internet. (photo by Courtney Perry)

So, I took 6 weeks off of the Internet, and I feel fine. Didn’t miss it all that much. In case you’re curious, here’s what I did:

1) Finished the second draft of my manuscript, Did God Kill Jesus? and sent it off to the publisher. Haven’t heard back yet, but I’m hoping they consider it an improvement. I do. Most days over the past six week, I wrote 6-8 hours per day. More on the book tomorrow.

2) Harvested bushels of produce from our garden.

3) Canned much of that produce. Final count: 12 jars beans, 6 jars beets, 12 jars pickles, 12 jars relish, 4 jars onions, 2 jars tomatoes, 6 loaves zucchini bread. The tomatoes are still coming. And 4 heads of cabbage are (hopefully) becoming sauerkraut in the basement.

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Don’t Miss This

#C21PHX

Hey, friends, the price goes up on Christianity21 tickets on Monday, so grab yours today. It’s such a solid event, replete with amazing voices. Most recently, we’ve added Brian McLaren, Glennon Melton, and Chris Seay. Plus, it’s in Phoenix. In January. Jump on this, people. Srsly.

Register Today!

Back to blogging next week. Talk at ya then.

Reassessing Marcus Borg

Fellow Patheos blogger Frederick Schmidt has penned an article for the Journal of Preaching about the strengths and weaknesses of Marcus Borg:

Marcus Borg

One: Marc relies heavily on stereotyping of a Christian perspective that, where it exists, is historically representative of a small minority.

I’ve known some of the Christians that Marc uses as a foil for his apologetic, but it is hardly fair to suggest that the kind of thinking he outlines dominated the church until Progressive Christianity came along. The Christian tradition is a global, wide- ranging, and complex phenomenon covering more than two millennia. Protestant fundamentalism is both a relatively recent and relatively small part of that story, even if it looms large in some parts of the United States.20

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The Evangelical Unicorn: A Third Way on Gay Marriage

I reviewed two books by evangelicals on gay marriage for The Christian Century — God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines and A Letter to my Congregation by Ken Wilson — and the review is now available online. Here’s the core of what differentiates their books:

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Remember Phil Chalmers?

Public Speaker Phil Chalmers talks to Bowie Junior High seventh-graders about the consequences of bullying, Feb. 2, 2012, at the school in Odessa, Texas. Heather Leiphart/Odessa American/AP

I used to debate Big Phil at the National Youth Workers Convention, at least until the year that a member of his posse started shouting at me and grabbed a chair like he was going to throw it. I don’t think Phil got asked back after that.

Well, now Phil is the self-purported “leading expert on school shootings,” although he lacks any formal training…in anything. Self-promotion, however, is still in his wheelhouse, as Newsweek reports,

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Entering Endarkenment with Barbara Brown Taylor

This book review is by my spouse, Courtney Perry.

Endarkenment.

Ray Wylie Hubbard first awakened me to that word when I heard him sing “A. Enlightenment, B. Endarkenment (Hint: There is no C)” at a party in Texas.  I laughed aloud, surprised at the witty mouthful of words he jammed into a mere song chorus, looking at my (now-)husband as if to say, “Are you hearing this? Am I even hearing this?”

I didn’t actually reflect upon the meaning of endarkenment, however, until I read it in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark.

“ . . . I realize that in a whole lifetime spent with seekers of enlightenment, I have never once heard anyone speak in hushed tones about the value of endarkenment.  The great mystics of the Christian tradition all describe it as part of the journey into God, but it has been a long time since The Cloud of Unknowing was on anyone’s bestseller list.” (p. 86)

Then I had to ask Wikipedia what The Cloud of Unknowing is:

The Cloud of Unknowing (Middle English: The Cloude of Unknowyng) is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the latter half of the 14th century. The text is a spiritual guide on contemplative prayer in the late Middle Ages. The underlying message of this work proposes that the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.

I’ve always been a proponent of introspective alone time, but that’s generally when I inspire myself by reading positive, hopeful texts and meditating to feel a powerful connection to the Universe/God.  It’s my upper.  Where I struggle is sitting in the stew of a miserable situation which I cannot change and which seems to have no positive outcome.  If I can’t make a circumstance lighter (less-weighty) or see how it could improve, I’m left feeling incapacitated and confused.  (Our dear friend and Enneagram master Suzanne Stabile says that all Enneagram 7′s — as I am, indicated by the prior sentence — must read this book.)  What Learning to Walk in the Dark reminds me is it’s in that moment of immobile despair that true growth occurs. 

Following a path of lunar spirituality, BBT walks us through a visceral experience of darkness that offers positive dark imagery to be collected and carried.  Night-blooming flowers, the unfathomable expanse of a starry skyscape (which is rendered invisible/unknowable by city lights), the biological necessity of sleep during nighttime hours.  Many beautiful and beneficial things happen expressly in the dark.  As a photographer who began working in a darkroom, I love to recall the magic born in that blackness. BBT also speaks of the over-done metaphor of light/awakening, even in the Bible, and how the hyper-idealized sense of light and demonized sense of darkness has fed ideas of racism and fear through the ages.

The world is infinitely more complex than a simple understanding of light and dark.  Spending time with this text, as I did while in a place of acute discomfort, allowed me to step back and take in the fullness of the bounty of darkness.  The book won’t fix your problems.  It won’t make you instantly happy.  But in the rich text I found affirmation of my own time spent in the darkness.


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